A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

In accounts of violence, context is everything. For example: when Kathy Keller smashed plates with a hammer.

Kathy Keller once smashed plates with a hammer in order to get her husband Tim Keller to listen to her. She had been repeatedly telling him that he was working too hard and it was harming their marriage and family (see The Meaning Of Marriage (google books) and Christian Post interview with Kathy and Tim Keller).

Tim and Kathy tell the anecdote about how Tim was working too hard and ignoring his wife’s pleas to slow down. One day he came home to find Kathy smashing their wedding china with a hammer. This got his attention and he listened! They had a productive conversation and he changed his ways. Note: Kathy had only smashed the saucers which were already useless in that their matching cups had long since been broken.

I like the fact that both Tim and Kathy depict Kathy’s saucer-smashing as positive. But I don’t like the fact that they put no caveats in about domestic abuse. The lack of strong caveats shows that they either have little understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, or they simply prefer to avoid the uncomfortable topic…

The need for caveats when teaching about violence

Without proper caveats, that anecdote they gave is very dangerous. And I mean a caveat in the main text, immediately before or after the anecdote, not a footnote or an line item in appendix which many readers won’t read. Without a strong caveat, abusers will grab hold of an anecdote like that, especially when it comes from a celebrity preacher, and twist it to justify their abusive conduct. Tim Keller ought to have known this and said something very direct to make it hard for an abuser to use the anecdote as a license to smash stuff around the home on the pretext “he needs to get his wife’s attention” or “she needs to listen to him”.

The reality in countless homes around the world is that abusive men smash stuff because they believe they need to terrify their wives to ensure compliance and submission to their power and control. Domestic abuse professionals call this demonstration violence. A fair proportion of abusers use demonstration violence to intimidate their targets. It may not happen early in the relationship, but there is always a possibility that the abuser will add demonstration violence to his arsenal of abuse tactics.

Immediately after that anecdote, Keller ought to have outlined the key features of domestic abusers: their mentality of entitlement and their wicked misuse of power and coercive control. He should then have stated that because of these dynamics, domestic abuse needs to be addressed very differently from how we address normal marriage problems. Then he ought to have directed his readers to a list of the domains in which abusers can exercise power and control over their partners:–  verbal / psychological, social isolation, financial, sexual, physical, spiritual and legal.

Why am I saying “he” here, rather than telling both Tim and Kathy what they ought to have done as co-authors? Because Tim is a complementarian, and last I heard, complementarian men are supposed to take the leadership in protecting women.

In the context of how Kathy had tried to caution and warn Tim about his overworking, and how he had not heeded all her verbal and diplomatic warnings, in that context, her breaking the saucers was a well-judged, prudent, creative, wise and godly thing to do. She’d probably carefully thought it through: how to get his attention so he would listen to her concerns and take them seriously and act on them.

But Kathy Keller (I assume) is not being coercive controlled by Tim and she is not at risk of him deciding he needs to smash stuff to intimidate her. Nor (I assume) is Tim Keller likely to use Kathy’s prudent and well-judged smashing of saucers as a ‘justification’ for him smashing whatever he wants to smash around the house whenever he chooses to.

And I further assume that Tim Keller probably won’t claim (like this guy does) that Kathy’s saucer smashing illustrates how evil feminism has invaded the church.

But it’s not good enough

To every man, especially men who have influence as complementarian leaders: it is not good enough to simply not be an abuser yourself. You need to take a pro-active and well-informed stand against abusers — and I mean REALLY well informed, starting with reading this blog — and whatever you write and teach you need to carefully take into account how abusers will try to twist it. And you need to ask yourself:  “Might victims of abuse be loaded up with more false guilt by what I have said?” Thus you need to put in very clear strong caveats to ensure that

(1) abusive distortions are denounced before they get off the blocks, and

(2) victims of abuse will not be harmed by your teaching.

But why listen to me Tim Keller? After all, I’m only a woman…



  1. Sarah

    agreed. For years I hear “if he treats you badly, then leave… unless you are married”. So they are used to using caveats in Bible studies and sermons already and have no excuses for not using more informed phrases. Unfortunately, there is such a resistance to doing this. People are so blind when it comes to this. I once was, because there was no information getting to anybody, and what is, is not being taken seriously.

    All I am pleading for the church to do is to qualify in their sermons “unless it is abusive” and “this qualifies as abuse” and “abusive people are in the church”.
    Recently the church I had attended started to drop the “unless you are married” and pat themselves on the back for being so forward thinking. To me it is so far behind. I think I am just impatient with how slowly this process is going because while they are dragging their feet, while they are ignoring the amount of research out there, many are being abused…

  2. Annie

    Context is everything. Years and years ago one evening my husband was on me so much calling me names and accusing me of things that I got so frustrated. Finally I slapped him on the shoulder and said stop saying those things. It was the only time I ever did that. Immediately he switched gears and began accusing me of hitting him and being abusive. It was a slap. I didn’t “hit” him. It was a lame, “girly” slap. He weighs a lot more than me. It would take more than that to hurt him. Still his accusations made me feel guilty. I also realized then he’d used whatever I did against me. Somehow that slap was horrible but all his behavior was justified. I have no doubt that he remembers that event and is saving it to use against me if needed.

    • Abby

      My experience with abusers is similar to what Annie said.
      Take that same scenario with Kathy and Tim. She smashes the plates out of frustration and instead of sitting down to talk out their problems he goes on a smear campaign. She is just crazy, I come home from a long days work and she is smashing our china. Now she has to defend herself for her bad behavior. Tim refuses to take any responsibility for whatever led up to Kathy smashing plates. When they go to the pastor for help, he sees it as both are doing bad things and why can’t we all get along here. Crazy-world has begun.

  3. Carradee

    But why listen to me Tim Keller? After all, I’m only a woman…

    (grimaces) That attitude is depressingly common, even though Scripture has so many examples displaying that women are as capable of wisdom as men are.

    I agree with you that caveats are necessary. That justification stuff you describe is what my parents would’ve done to me—and they have great reputations in their church, last I knew…and that’s despite the church leadership having more than sufficient evidence to be leery of them.

  4. KayE

    There are far too many books, articles, blog posts, sermons, videos etc etc written by people who are lucky enough to be married to someone normal, and who therefore feel qualified to boast and to give advice and judgement to people who are just not so lucky.

  5. KayE

    It’s a very serious issue. So many Christian leaders and writers are spending vast amounts of time and energy giving out advice on marriage. At the very same time they are choosing to ignore the scandal of countless numbers of Christian victims of abusive spouses. What do they think happens to those victims, and to the children of those victims who have been excluded from taking part in the life of a Christian community? In my opinion all those books and other media deserve to be thrown on a bonfire.

    • braveandstandingstrong

      Amen KayE! I read so many of those books. At one point, I said to a homeschooling friend, I just want to read my Bible! I don’t know who I can trust with their interpretation of God’s word. I know I can trust God.

      Barb and Pastor Jeff,
      For so many years, I was not discerning. I listened and trusted what they told me was truth. But then I found your ministry. I read your books and I am so blessed. Thank you!

  6. joepote01

    Yes, context is everything…and, unfortunately, context is easily skewed and / or manipulated.

    I did a recent post on my blog about a K-LOVE Radio “Encouraging Story of the Day.” The story itself was so brief as to not include a lot of context. However, the very lack of context combined with a few red flags caught my attention as sounding more like an abuse / manipulation scenario than a praise-worthy miraculous reconciliation. Cynical? [Internet Archive link]

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Ng

    Personally, I see smashing plates (or any objects) as a non-constructive way of communication. In this case, she was not being violent.. But I hope no one follows her example, male or female 😦
    Knowing personally a couple where the husband has destroyed objects in his anger, I think we are walking a line here. There are days I feel like throwing my coffee cup to the wall out of frustration (OK, I live alone, so no one else would have to watch it..!).. But I know it might open doors of tolerance for other stuff I want to control.
    If I ever marry and my husband threw stuff or smashed plates, I would leave – and if I did, he would be free to do likewise.

  8. Finding Answers

    From the original post:

    …..and whatever you write and teach you need to carefully take into account how abusers will try to twist it.


    Words. Phrasing. Punctuation. Tone of voice.

    Know your audience.

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